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Coffee & Counsel with Adonis Michael

This month Michael Rose & Baylis director, Adonis Michael, ponders the potential potholes along the road to driverless cars

words by Adonis MICHAEL

A car is trundling along an average dual carriageway somewhere in England, with normal traffic flowing, the driver of the vehicle behind looks at a notification on his phone, a split second later he has ploughed into the car in front. The drivers hop out and swap details, if there is any injury then lawyers will almost certainly get involved. A claim will be submitted against the fault driver, (doesn’t take an LLB from Oxbridge to work out who was at fault here) and then his insurance will make the necessary payments.

This is the state of play today. Yes, there are more complicated liability disputes – especially when there are multiple vehicles involved or if the accident was on a roundabout – but generally these are easily settled with witness testimony and other evidence. All nice and simple, relatively speaking. But brace yourselves: there is a revolution afoot and the world as we know it is about to change with the widespread introduction of the long dreamt-about and recently talked-about autonomous cars. Indeed, things are about to get messy. Ford predicts it will offer fully autonomous, ride-sharing vehicles on public roads by 2021. And Tesla plans to have its first fleet of robotaxis, fully self driving by next year. The future is upon us!

Now that you’re sat down with your coffee, allow me to throw a few little quandaries at you. Just off the bat, using the aforementioned RTA as an example: Who would be to blame if it was an autonomous car? Is it the driver at fault, who never had control of the vehicle in the first place? Or is it down to the AI – or automated system developer – who created the driving software in the first place? Or the auto manufacturer who assembled and supplied the vehicle, maybe? You can take this even further: Would it be legal to take your hands completely off the steering wheel and leave the vehicle in control (Tesla are actually saying they will do away with the steering wheel altogether)? Should there be limits on what you can do in the car? Should you be allowed to browse social media or use your smartphone while the car navigates for you, for example?

And here’s an ethical one for you to think about in bed: The autonomous vehicle driving you along is giving you and your 4 pals a nice smooth 30mph ride, whilst you chit chat and listen to George Michael, suddenly someone runs into the road in front. It’s too late to brake in time and only evasive action can be taken. To the left, there is a mother pushing a pram. To the right a brick wall. How does the system decide what to do? Turn right and risk 5 lives; go straight ahead and almost certainly take out the pedestrian; or swing left with tragic consequence? Not something we want to think about really, is it? 

The truth is, as a society we have only just started to consider the implications and consequences of this technology. The legal world will now need to step up and assist with policies, regulations and practices. The first step, of course, will be to actually understand the technology and how it works. I realise that I’m just raising question after question here, but that is where we are at, I’m afraid. Question marks abound, and there is such a long way to go before this transition will be seamless, leaving our roads a place of pure tranquillity. What is the insurance and product liability impact? How will privacy, security and customer data be handled? What happens when a vehicle experiences a data breach or cyber attack?

It’s said that history repeats itself, and with good reason, too. Let me take you back to August 17, 1896 if I may. No, they didn’t have driverless cars then, but let me tell you the story of Mrs Bridget Driscoll who, at 45 years old, became the first pedestrian in the world to be struck and killed by the revolutionary new Roger Benz horseless carriage (now more widely referred to as the humble car). But the Victorians weren’t too worried, the Locomotives on Highways Act came in shortly after and 120 odd years later everything is fine (legally speaking, of course). My drift is that, we’ve been here before and we’ve adapted accordingly. I expect new legislation to be passed and existing legislation to be adapted and, over time, we’ll get there. But there will almost certainly be a few potholes and speed bumps along the way. But I’m sure the wheels will keep turning regardless. AM